A Warning Sign

A Warning Sign



words by willow defebaugh

Welcome to The Overview, a weekly newsletter in which Editor-in-Chief Willow Defebaugh offers an aerial view of the latest events in climate and culture—and how they all fit together.

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“Anything which is more than our necessity is poison.”


A poison is a compound that disrupts the normal functions of a body or system through a series of chemical reactions. Different poisons vary in terms of lethality and effects; some snake venoms attack the victim’s bloodstream, increasing or decreasing pressure (haemotoxic venom), while others disrupt the nervous system causing paralysis (neurotoxic venom). And though many poisons exist in nature, whether by the bright colors of a viper or the sound of the rattlesnake, they almost always come with a warning.


We may not be venomous by nature, but humans know all about poison. Earlier this week, the captain of a whale watching group in San Diego, California reported a fuel spill off the coast of San Clemente Island. Using a drone, Domenic Biagini recorded footage of dolphins swimming through the sheen—which he estimated to be 50 miles long. He called it into the Coast Guard, who said it was the Navy’s responsibility. The Navy told ABC News it was the Coast Guard’s duty and that they weren’t investigating it. How many spills like this one go unaccounted for?


We have had our fair share of victories to celebrate on the fossil fuel frontlines, though. Just this week, a Massachusetts judge denied Exxon Mobil’s request to dismiss a case accusing the oil giant of intentionally misleading the public and its investors about the role it has played in causing the climate crisis. And earlier this month, it was announced that three of Exxon’s board seats would be going to environmental advocates thanks to the work of climate activist hedge fund Engine No. 1, which is aiming to push the company in the direction of clean energy.


In her latest column for Atmos, Ruth H. Hopkins writes about the sacredness and scarcity of water that will define our lifetimes. Despite the fact that 70% of our planet’s surface is water, only 3% of it is fit for us to drink. In four years, an estimated 1.8 billion people will live in areas impacted by water scarcity. As Hopkins put it: “In spite of the knowledge that we lack available freshwater, as well as an increase in demand, waters are still being polluted with garbage and chemicals, and governments continue to jeopardize what little there is by continuing to promote and support big oil while refusing to move toward green energy. Fossil fuel extraction not only drives climate change, but it also wastes water and pollutes it by leaking toxins into it.”


Of course, we cannot uncouple our culture of contamination with our culture of consumption. In her new book Unraveled: The Life and Death of a Garment, New Standards Institute founder Maxine Bédat tackles the poisonous greenwashing, polluting processes, and toxic supply chains that underlie the fashion industry. And while excess might appear to be woven into every fiber of our cultural being, Bédat insists that this is conditioning—which is possible to change. As she told Elle in a recent interview: “It’s not like we want new stuff all the time. We’re just sent a lot of messages to buy things all the time.”


While the chain reactions and systemic disruption it’s causing may be manifold, the insatiable hunger of colonial capitalism is the real poison of which we are speaking. When we go back to our initial definition of poison, this mindset of extraction and excess is disrupting the body to which we all belong. And Mother Nature has certainly been sending warning signs. So my question for you, dear reader, is what might change if you viewed everything beyond what’s needed as poison? Not just for the planet, but you personally? How might you reevaluate your priorities and the way you use resources?


This is not to say that we should eschew everything outside of what’s strictly necessary for survival (food, water, shelter, and connection). Swinging from one extreme to another is rarely an effective course of treatment. In small doses, even certain snake venoms are used to create remedies. What I’m offering here is an invitation to explore the areas of our life that we need to come into right relationship with. If excess is the venom in our veins, then the antidote can only be temperance—the medicine of moderation, which is to say balance. After all, what is nature if not an expression of equilibrium?

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